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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2002)
Millions of US $  406,000    
GNI per capita
 US $ 18,000
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Taiwan

Update No: 104 - (26/02/13)

A new broom?
A Cabinet reshuffle ahead of the nine-day lunar New Year holiday is being interpreted as an attempt by President Ma Ying-jeou to retain his grip on power both within his party and within government. Premier Sean Chen has lost his position not for health reasons as has been given in the official pronouncements of the change, but rather because he chose to disagree with Ma on some key policy issues. In his place comes Jiang Yi-huah who is regarded as a liberal academic although little is really known about him. Insiders believe that he will be more ‘compliant’ and accepting of President Ma’s control of party and government. Whether this will give him the leeway he needs to turn the economy around remains to be seen. At present the numbers appear to be improving and a window of opportunity is opening up. The next few months will be crucial.

[The elderly and sick former President Chen Shui-bian is still in gaol after a disgraceful “trial” that failed to meet the standards of democratic justice, primarily it is believed for political reasons.]

In February, the Chinese-speaking world bid farewell to the Dragon and ushered in the Year of the Snake. According to the view of one local soothsayer published in the local press, it will not be a good year for Taiwan. Financial markets are likely to remain unstable and “the political establishment will rest on its laurels ignoring the plight of the common people… ‘Conflict within the government [will prevent] the implementation of good policy; the GDP will stagnate or even fall as the vitality of the nation fails to revive.”

So, the new lunar New Year arrived with a sense of foreboding. Critics of government would shrug their shoulders and say ‘so what’s new’ and certainly they would have a point. The approval rating of President Ma Ying-jeou is at a staggering low point of 13 per cent. Taiwan’s economic malaise is the root cause of this unpopularity but a significant contributing factor is the aloofness of the president and (what is perceived to be) his poor communication skills.

Both the ruling KMT party as well as the opposition DPP remain wracked with internecine squabbling leaving Taiwan at present without a viable alternative government; not that elections are due any time soon. In a sense therefore our astrologer-publicist was really only stating the blindingly obvious.

In an effort to shore up his position, Ma has reshuffled his Cabinet. The reshuffle was precipitated at the end of January by the resignation of Premier Sean Chen. Publicly Chen’s resignation was ascribed to health reasons but privately a number of analysts are opining that it was due to policy differences with President Ma.

For certain, Chen quits the Cabinet leaving some thorny unresolved issues behind him including the controversy over the role of nuclear power in Taiwan’s energy mix, the hollowing out of Taiwan’s manufacturing base and salary stagnation that has led to an erosion of real wages and regional competitiveness plus the issues of pension reform and fuel price increases that came to the fore late last year. And let’s not forget the hullabaloo over the invasion of Chinese interests into Taiwanese media; this is an issue that is still festering.

Jiang Yi-huah, a 52-year old Yale educated academic replaces Chen as premier and heir-apparent with MIT graduate Mao Chi-kuo (born 1948) elevated from his position as Minister of Transport and Communications to become vice-premier. Other changes include the appointment of China Airlines chairman Chang Chia-juch as Minister of Economic Affairs; and Minister without Portfolio Kuan Chung-ming in charge of the Council for Economic Planning and Development.

The resignation of Sean Chen was announced just ahead of the lunar New Year holiday although there appears to have been some delay between the tendering of Chen’s resignation and the public announcement of a cabinet shake-up. It is widely rumoured that Ma wanted central bank Governor Perng Fai-nan to take the premiership. Perng has been at the helm of the central bank since February 1998 and is seen as having been instrumental in weathering the storms of the 1997-8 Asian Financial Crisis as well as the more recent GFC. He is a man with a global stature and Global Finance magazine has ranked Perng among the world’s top central bankers for the past eight years in a row. Jiang it seems may have been ‘Plan B’ in the quest to find a new premier.

Little is known of Jiang other than that he has the reputation of being a liberal academic who keeps his personal political views close to his chest.

The local press has speculated that one reason for his appointment may be that he will be Ma’s alter ego in the latter’s quest to keep control of both the party and the government apparatus. The announcement of the cabinet reshuffle was made in the form of a late night press release in the name of the ‘party and government leadership’. Ma serves as both the national president as well as chairman of the KMT and it is understood that he is seeking to overturn party convention by seeking a third term at the chairmanship. Whether he is doing this as the behest of Beijing, is a matter of speculation. Certainly he has shown a penchant for promoting mainlanders to his cabinet over native Taiwanese and he appears to rely on a small circle of confidantes rather than seek opinions from a wider caucus for fear that he may hear views contrary to his own.

Analysts have seen the Cabinet reshuffle as an attempt by the president to better integrate the administrative and legislative branches of government while at the same time consolidating his grip on the party leadership thereby thwarting any internal power struggle ahead of next year’s mayoral elections and the presidential elections due in 2016. Ma wishes to put his imprimatur on both. Barring any slip on his part, Jiang appears to be being groomed as Ma’s successor and the person to lead the KMT into the 2016 election. Chen has lost his opportunity by appearing too independently-minded.

The crux of the matter is whether the new cabinet can do any better than its predecessor at pulling Taiwan out of the economic doldrums and restoring people’s confidence in the KMT government. A January 26 by-election in Taichung which the KMT should have won hands down, proved to be a cliff hanger with the KMT candidate eventually winning by a margin of less than one per cent. Seen as a litmus test of voter sentiment, this once pan-blue stronghold must now be considered marginal. This combined with Ma’s enduring unpopularity, is something that the new leadership team will need to address. The problem is that the biggest stumbling block may be Ma himself.

Once local commentator claims
“the timing of the Cabinet reshuffle showed Ma is desperate to raise his approval ratings and consolidate his leadership in the KMT. Jiang taking over the premiership also reflected the KMT’s lack of talent and Ma’s limited decision-making circle...

“The selection of Jiang as premier is not surprising. This latest personnel reshuffle only confirms Ma’s habit of choosing officials with an academic background from a limited talent pool.”

Certainly, the key economic ministries have had a shake-up while the leadership of the central bank remains intact. This may be a wise move given the uncertainties that continue to linger on the global economic horizon. Yet all may not be lost. Despite the gloomy predictions of the soothsayers, the Taiwanese economy may be doing better than expected.

The Ministry of Finance reported in early February that exports had risen for the third successive month helped by a tentative economic global recovery that bolstered demand for Taiwan’s electronic products. In January the IMF raised its forecast for annual growth in the volume of global trade from an earlier 2.8 per cent to 3.8 per cent. While one per cent may not seem like much, it actually represents a 36 per cent increase from previous volume estimates. Importantly exports to both China and the United States are showing signs of recovery.

Inbound tourism is also growing at a rapid rate as direct flights to major Chinese cities and a relaxation of the rules surrounding tourists from China, start to show results. Inbound tourism surged by 20 per cent in 2012 to reach a record of 7.3 million visitors. The biggest increase was in arrivals from China which increased from 1.8 million to 2.6 million—a whopping 44 per cent increase over the previous year. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau has estimated that foreign exchange earnings from tourism reached US$11.6 billion in 2012 and the hospitality industry is one area where employment is burgeoning.

The most recent economic forecasts suggest that, barring unforeseen vents, the longer term economic outlook for Taiwan may be improving. Some private forecasting agencies are already predicting that Taiwan’s GDP growth could accelerate to around 3.9 per cent in 2013 from the 1.25 per cent recorded in 2012. The government think-tanks have yet to announce their revised forecasts.

If borne out, an improving economy may give the Ma administration some welcome breathing space and a window of opportunity. Certainly, the reshuffle of key economic positions may well be the KMT’s last opportunity in a while to regain the hearts and minds of the electorate.

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